I remember seeing a Jerry Seinfeld sketch where he stood up and said that, to him, Superman was ‘the guy'. There was no on else, the lifetime ruler of Jerry Seinfeld's personal pantheon of heroes was Superman.
Watch Beetlejuice. Or I'll kill you.
Well, let me just put my nerd hat on for a second and say no soup for you, Seinfeld. If there's ever going to be one guy, it's Batman. Full stop, end of story, the guy with the utility belt wins.
Batman and Superman are, to me, kind of personal subjects. Way before the X-MEN movies, way before Dr. Doom duked it out with the Fantastic Four and the Silver Surfer, before even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I grew up with Michael Keaton as Batman and Christopher Reeve as Superman. And the divide between the two of them is one that fascinated me then, and fascinates me still to this day, although I'm careful not to show how deep my passions run when I'm on dates. While I could spend hours discussing how much I'd like to have my very own Batcave, something tells me that it's best to stick to the available choices on the wine list.
Because here, to me, are two perfect and opposing examples of the superhero character. On the one hand, you've got Superman- an incredibly powerful alien, a stranger to the planet, who chooses to protect the little guy sheerly out of a moral imperative. On the other hand, you've got Batman, the dark and disturbed vigilante who fights crime in the memory of his parents, the mother and father who were gunned down right in front of him in an alleyway.
I mean, movie mythology just doesn't get any better than that. Sure, the idea came from a comic book, but the kind of grand spectacle and mental torture that surrounds the taking on of an alternate, bat-caped persona just lends itself so very well to the big screen.
As a side note, Forbes Magazine ran an article around the release date of BATMAN BEGINS, analysing how much it would cost to be the Dark Knight. The estimate came in at around a cool $3.4 million. That's not so much, right? An estimated 1.133 billion people use the Internet- all I've got to do is email each and every one of them asking for a dollar. If they all say yes, I could be Batman and still have change.
Batman's appeal lies in two things- his everlasting pursuit of justice, and his ability to kick a whole lot of ass despite being just as human as the next man. It's something that Superman just can't match. Watch SUPERMAN RETURNS and you'll see a guy who can fly and who has super-strength stop a plane from crashing into the ground. Watch any one of the Batman flicks and think ‘You know… he's just an ordinary guy. So… if HE's an ordinary guy, and I'M an ordinary guy… maybe I should start hitting the weights and get myself an outfit…'
Whereas Superman, aside from being in a realm unreachable by mere mortal men, no matter how much they can bench press, is more of a Boy Scout, standing up for ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way' (interesting to note that the American Way line was substituted with the less confrontational
‘all that stuff' in SUPERMAN RETURNS). Sure, he's one of the good guys, and it's far better to have him on the team than playing against it (SUPERMAN THREE, I am looking in your direction) but at the end of the day, he just doesn't have the cool of Batman. Superman's just too straight, too moral, too good. He doesn't have the conflict or the passion of the Caped Crusader- he doesn't get down and dirty enough.
Hey Cyclops! I totally did your girl!
Both of the franchises have enjoyed vigorous re-establishments recently, with SUPERMAN RETURNS and BATMAN BEGINS both making the most of developments in special effects and a more comprehensive looks at the psychology of both of their heroes. Again, BATMAN BEGINS trumped SUPERMAN RETURNS in the quality stakes, but, to be fair, the massive ensemble cast of BATMAN BEGINS was a major factor in its success. Brandon Routh had massive shoes to fill, and he was up against Kevin Spacey, who delighted in chewing on every piece of scenery he could find. On the other hand, Christian Bale, one of the best actors in Hollywood today, could rely on the support of veterans like Liam Neeson, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman.
Both films, however, were alike in how they took the best elements of what had come before (barring Joel Schumacher's mauling of BATMAN AND ROBIN and BATMAN FOREVER- seriously, how did the guy that directed THE LOST BOYS and TIGERLAND drop the ball so badly?) and improved on them.
Christopher Reeve's Superman was everything that Superman was supposed to be- brave, upstanding, noble and strong. Whether he was laying some smack down on a supercomputer or matching wits with Gene Hackman's suave and sartorial Lex Luthor, the guy was always standing straight up and letting you know that here was a man that you could trust. His only failings were when he let his emotions take over- freaking out over the death of Lois in SUPERMAN 1 and turning back the clock, or becoming human so that he could finally enjoy love and happiness in SUPERMAN 2. Superman in the Reeve incarnation had all the moral rectitude of the comic strip character, but sometimes he had to suffer to keep true to that path.
According to Wikipedia (which is of course always right and its sources beyond question) there was something of an outcry when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton was to play the Ace of Detectives in BATMAN. The problem was, the diehard fans pointed out, was that Keaton was a comic actor- he was good enough to be a lightweight romantic leading man or a wisecracking sidekick, but as Batman? No way.
In BATMAN and BATMAN RETURNS, Keaton quashed any doubts whatsoever about his versatility. He was suitably casual as Bruce Wayne, the man behind the mask, and then stepped into a realm of brooding psychosis when he put on the Batsuit.
Which brings us to the question of the alter ego. One of the more well-known facets of both Batman and Superman is that, in order to live the life that they choose, both of them have to take on an alternate persona in order to preserve the safety and security of
their loved ones (and to not get sued for various damages to property).
The new Dorsia dress code
Both Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh stumbled and stuttered their way through perfectly gauche roles as the well-meaning but bumbling Clark Kent. Routh was practically a carbon copy of the ‘um…gosh, Lois!' portrayal of the little-boy-in-the-big-city schtick that Reeve took on as Kent. While on the subject, the Ben Stiller/William H. Macy film MYSTERY MEN has perhaps the best theatrical explanation of why a simple pair of glasses is such a good disguise.
George Clooney won acclaim for his portrayal of the charming playboy Bruce Wayne- one suspects that perhaps, for Clooney, this wasn't much of a stretch. But the man who nailed it was, once again, C-Bale. The other films in the Batman franchise tipped their hats to Bruce Wayne's need to preserve his image as nothing more than a man with nothing better to do with his time than chase girls and spend money. In BATMAN BEGINS, on the other hand, we see Bruce Wayne coldly and calculatingly play up that aspect- getting drunk, driving sportscars, jumping into hotel lobby pools and then calmly buying his way out of trouble.
SUPERMAN RETURNS took the themes of the original movies and expanded on them- once again, Superman is good and pure and here to save the world. He flies, he leaps tall buildings in a single bound, bullets bounce off his eyes. The key to the movie, however, was the direction that was taken with it- SUPERMAN RETURNS looked at why the world needs Superman, it looks at the vast ocean of suffering that calls out for a saviour. Rather than just saying ‘Hey check it out- this guy can shoot heat rays from his eyes!' it takes a wider stance, looking at why the world would be a better place with a guy that can freeze water with his breath.
And then it has a terrible ending.
And BATMAN BEGINS, from start to finish, was all about the man behind the mask. It looked at the psychology of fear, at the nature of morals, at the nature and implementation of justice, all as it related to Batman. Yes, it's an action film, but it's that rarest of the breed, an action film with brains. It looked at how events can shape a person, can change the very course of their lives. Plus it had Liam Neeson and Christian Bale practicing their sword fighting on an iced-over lake while discussing the nature of action.
It's not that I'm against Superman- far from it. There's a special place in everyone's heart for Big Blue. He's the moral ideal, always willing to sacrifice himself if it will mean saving the lives of others. He's the guy that puts everyone else first without being a wiener about it- the guy that your parents wanted you to be.
Batman, though- well, he's just so badassed. Superpowers are all very well and good, but they pale beside being a superior martial artist and having your own fully equipped cave. Should they ever make a Batman versus Superman movie, I know who I'll be cheering for.
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